-Secularists have not yet won Australia-
Peter Barnes talks to David Cook
David Cook, the former principal of SMBC, is Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. He is married to Maxine, and has published short studies on Acts and Romans.
David, your term as Moderator General will come to an end in September, 2016. What reflections can you share about the state of the Presbyterian Church of Australia?
It has been a privilege for me to move around the nation and get a bigger picture of the health of the church during the last three years. The smaller states, WA and SA, are each facing problems. The Queensland Assembly has generously adopted SA and some encouraging developments are happening there already. NSW has made the offer to assist WA but we are waiting for the relationship to develop. I have only been to Tasmania once. The church there is well-established, faithful and, especially in Hobart, growing.
Victoria has especially impressed me for two reasons. First, at a recent Assembly I met with the members of their Church Planting Committee. Their convener, who has planted a church, chairs the committee and the rest are all involved in church planting. They have a clear and effective strategy that has led to the establishment of several new churches. Church planters get churches planted. This is very encouraging.
Second, I lecture at Presbyterian Theological College Victoria in preaching. They have a very fine body of candidates. In 2017 we will see nine PTC graduates being appointed to churches and I would be very happy to be pastored by any of those men.
You have written a fortnightly column at presbyterian.org.au and often mention the value of our theological colleges and schools. Why do you believe they are so crucial?
Our theological colleges are training the future leaders of the church and we must protect their commitment to the integrity of the Bible.
The history of the Australian Presbyterian Church reminds us that liberalism infected our denomination in the 1870s and has crippled the church and its mission over the last hundred years. The trouble began in our theological colleges. They were the entry point for the infection and have caused spiritual harm over several generations.
We must never forget that the price of spiritual freedom is eternal vigilance. We need to pray for the colleges, and I applaud any move to make them even more accountable to the denomination. I am sure the college leaders, knowing too well the dangers they face, would welcome a higher degree of accountability.
What of our schools?
The first thing I did when I became Moderator General in September 2013 was to meet the principals of our schools in Victoria and NSW.
The danger with our church schools is that they become expensive centres of elitism, isolated from the church, inoculating pupils with enough religion to set them against the true gospel.
Unfortunately, the state education system, which was once quite accommodating to Christian influence, has been thoroughly secularised. Secularists have made education at all levels a primary target and have seized control of universities, teachers’ unions and specialist faculty areas such as education, law, sociology, media studies, and journalism, to mention just a few.
I think we need to see our schools as distinctive Christian institutions that encourage open enquiry in search of the truth. Since we believe that truth is best understood through Jesus Christ, the God-man, our schools should seek to persuade students of the rationality of the Christian worldview in all areas of life. Our starting point must be that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).
This does not happen by accident. The educational process must be initiated and directed by the leadership of the school. For example, in a Presbyterian school in which I am now involved I have seen this happening in very pleasing ways. At Sydney’s Scots College, Dr Ian Lambert has just completed his 10th year as Principal. The school has just had its best year ever academically. They have also been warmly commended by the NSW Board of Studies and registered for a further five years. They have excellent staff, student ratios, full enrolments and a developing building program. This school takes seriously its commitment to the development of mind, body and soul. The principal has made sure that Christian studies have a high profile and he has increased chaplaincy staff and encouraged the growth of Bible study groups.
The Scots College has become a model of what can be done when the gospel is central. We need to plant more schools like it with a Christian educational philosophy to stem the tide of secularism. I believe that we must develop a clear strategy for planting more schools and these initiatives should come from within the schools themselves.
How do you understand the spiritual state of things in Australia? Is there anything we can do?
I think Australia has become an increasingly secular country while trying to hang on to some Christian social values. While Christianity used to be a major influence in an earlier time in Australia, the position has changed a lot in my lifetime. Atheism has certainly been on the rise since the 1960s and has become quite aggressive in the last decade.
If you look at Australia through the window of the Sydney Morning Herald you can see this obvious change. The Herald’s original founder was John Fairfax, a Congregationalist who went to church several times on Sundays. Four of the first five editors between 1830-1903 were Protestant ministers of religion. Today the Herald is radically secular and treats Bible-based Christianity with contempt. Increasing numbers of people are following its anti-Christian lead.
However, the problem for atheists is that they have a lot of difficulty describing their ideal world without God. Clearly, communist-style countries aren’t attractive to people like Richard Dawkins, Phillip Adams and Peter Fitzsimons. Nor are hard-right, capitalist, libertarian regimes that are weak on social justice. They just want liberal democracies based on Christian values without all the God-stuff. Their ideal society is based on a universe that is ruled by chance and where right and wrong have no objective existence. Such a scenario sounds like a pretty miserable place to me.
I think the job of the church is to tell Australians that the modern alternatives are hopeless and we need to get back to our roots in the Bible and the message of the gospel. The questions we have to answer are: Who is God and what does He expect of us? We learn this in the gospel.
I am part of a committee that is responding to the spiritual darkness in Australia by reminding people of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation took place by discovering the message of the gospel.
We are publishing a book, Truth Matters, which will help us do this again today. We will distribute it at the national assembly in September.
We have commissioned a number of ministers to write evangelistic tracts and are urging every congregation to conduct an evangelistic outreach to its local area under the theme “Taking God Seriously”. We are also hoping to send out some evangelists to congregations who are taking part in outreach over the next year.
Your own state, NSW, has a Christian Premier, Governor and Police Commissioner. Is that having an impact on the state?
No doubt it is, in all sorts of hidden ways, of which I am unaware. I respect each of these men and am thankful for them.
However, the secularist Andrews’ government in Victoria is quite bold in promoting its agenda. Scripture classes are no longer available in Victoria in school hours. Further, Bible correspondence courses have been banned in Victorian prisons although they are available in every other Australian state and in the Pacific nations.
The question I want to ask is: “Why is it acceptable for a leader to be motivated and directed by secularism but not acceptable for our Christian leaders to express their moral convictions directed by their faith?”
Again, a number of our federal leaders seem to be morally vacuous; they are electorally driven pragmatists. They claim to support traditional marriage and the family but they have also declared their support for same-sex marriage too.
Those leaders who claim to be Christian need to provide unambiguous moral direction. What good is it to have them in office if they make so little difference?
I am sorry to say that in this but Daniel Andrews seems to provide an example for the others to follow. He has the courage to follow his convictions, wrong as they are.
How do you think we got to this point? There seems to be momentum for change to traditional marriage. How did this come about so quickly?’
I don’t think it has been quick at all. When liberalism took over the church from the 1920s onwards, it created a moral vacuum.
I taught Sunday school in 1968. The material was devoid of any redemptive content, it was just “be good and do your best”, and that curriculum was imposed on all churches. Traditional morality was already on the way out even in the church.
The late Ronald Conway, in his book The Land of the Long Weekend says: “Formerly tough-minded Presbyterians capitulated rather mysteriously in the late 1950s to a view of ministry as a kind of spiritual psychotherapy…..the world was connecting the church, rather than the church connecting the world.”
The moral vacuum became even worse with the arrival of the free love movement in the 1960s, the advent of the Pill and then abortion law reform. In 1973, when Senator Lionel Murphy became Attorney-General, his aim was to rid society of its Judeo-Christian influences. The centrepiece of his plan was contained in the Family Law Act 1975, which permitted a no-fault termination of marriage after 12 months of separation. All these events weakened marriage.
In the few decades since, a well-organised homosexual lobby has infiltrated the media and swayed public opinion so that increasing numbers of people now support same-sex marriage.
What are the essential Bible principles to grasp when we consider same-sex marriage?
We must remember that marriage between a man and a woman is a key theme of the Bible. It is certainly not a book about homosexuality. It begins and ends with marriage (Genesis 2; Revelation 19).
God made man and woman different so as to complement one another in marriage and to practise life-long love and faithfulness to each other. The union of marriage also involves sexual union through which a father and mother bring children into the world and nurture them. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24, states that marriage is only between one man and one woman. The Lord Jesus (Matthew 19) affirms marriage as always between a man and a woman.
The Bible also tells us about God, His purpose and will, how we rebelled against Him and how He enters history in the person of Jesus Christ to win us back. His purpose is to renew us so we can be like Him.
We should not forget that one aspect of our rebellion is to take sexual activity, a wonderful gift of God, outside marriage, where it becomes destructive. It’s like petrol. It’s good in a car, but potentially very dangerous outside of it.
Some say that what Paul condemns in Romans 1 are not homosexual relations as such, but unfaithful homosexual relations. What do you think?
Paul doesn’t qualify his statement about homosexuality in Romans 1. What he condemns is the exchange of natural relations between a man and a woman for unnatural sexual activity between persons of the same-sex.
It is cultural arrogance to think that we are the first generation to have faithful homosexual relationships. There may have been homosexuals in the first century who remained committed to one another. However, that’s not the point. Paul’s argument is that such sexual activity is “unnatural”. He uses the word “exchange” three times in Romans 1:23, 25, and 26 to indicate that people were abandoning “natural” sexual activity for that which is “indecent” and “unnatural”. When people exchange the natural for the unnatural Paul says they are in a state of rebellion against God.
What about those who ask why pay attention to the Bible when it speaks of homosexuality, when we don’t heed the command “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk’’ (Deut. 14:21)?
We need to read the Bible intelligently. Christians respect the Old Testament laws because they come from God. However, we need the help of Jesus Christ to interpret the law for us, as Origen said. We must read the food, sacrificial and moral laws through Christ’s teaching. Both the Old and New Testament make it clear that homosexual activity is unacceptable to God. We must repent of it and, like all sin, leave it behind. That is not easy, but it’s a necessary part of our obedience to Christ.
Now to point this out to practising homosexuals is neither hateful nor homophobic. In fact, it is kind if we believe that sin leads to eternal judgment.
By the way, we need to realise that some of Old Testament food laws served a spiritual purpose beyond whatever immediate purpose they had. With respect to boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, God not only forbade participating in a pagan ritual practice but He wanted us to know that it is utterly incongruous to take something like milk, meant by God for nurturing, and use it as an instrument of death.
Since God has made man and woman to complement each other, it is “unnatural” and contrary to His will to join man with man or woman with woman. Such unions cannot naturally produce children and they deny children the nurture of either their birth mother or father. Are we going to have a Sorry Day in, say, 2046 for children denied such nurture?
How can we prepare for the coming plebiscite?
The Government has committed itself to a process where every citizen must vote. The government will fund publishing the case for both the Yes and the No votes. A “majority vote” for same-sex marriage will trigger a change in the present legislation regulating marriage.
Senior politicians have told us how this is not just about marriages but also about freedom of speech and religious communication. Therefore, the silent majority need to get active. If the plebiscite is lost it will change life in Australia, as it has in Canada, the US and UK. This means we need to pray.
Ministers need to preach God’s Word about family, marriage and sex. We must be able to critique the arguments for same-sex marriage. Surveys show that when the traditional position is argued well, waverers generally move to favour that position.
I believe this plebiscite is winnable. In the National Assembly of Austria last year a move in favour of same-sex marriage was overruled by 110 to 26. In Italy there has been massive public demonstration in favour of traditional marriage. 300,000 people marched against same-sex marriage last year in Rome.
We also need Christians to man the 6700 polling booths in Australia.
The homosexual lobby has actively opposed this plebiscite and they will now work to have it dealt with quickly. We need to pray that our leaders will give us sufficient freedom of speech and enough time for quiet considered reflection after the coming election before we have to vote.
I have written a number of columns on this and related issues at presbyterian.org.au.
First published Winter 2016 edition